6 more startups share fund for CMU grads

| Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A back posture training device Kelly Collier developed as a senior at Carnegie Mellon University is stitched together by local seamstresses.

But with a $50,000 grant from a program that helps young entrepreneurs, Collier envisions setting up a manufacturing process and marketing the RecoveryAid device that looks something like an ordinary back brace, but isn't.

Unlike a brace, “This isn't restrictive. It allows you to move how you wish to move, and by tactile, tangible cues you learn the right and wrong things to do,” said Collier, a 2011 graduate who studied biomedical engineering and materials science.

Her company, ActivAided Orthotics Inc. of the North Side, was among six startups to be awarded a share of $300,000 from the Open Field Entrepreneurs Fund, the university said.

Jonathan Kaplan, an alumnus who created the Flip Video Camera, and his wife, Marci Glazer, started the fund in 2011 to provide early-stage money for CMU alumni who graduated in the past five years. Since June, 16 startups have been awarded Open Field matching grants.

The current round of recipients, in addition to Collier's company, includes four local companies and one from California.

Collier's back posture product got its start through a senior class project.

The half-dozen students in her randomly assembled research group found they all suffered from back pain, she said, which was puzzling because they all were young and fit.

Collier was a varsity swimmer at CMU and was undergoing physical therapy at the time the project was getting started.

She asked her therapists and athletic trainers about back doctors in Pittsburgh, and the team ended up working with Dr. Gary Chimes, a UPMC physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist who has become ActivAided's chief medical adviser.

Collier's company has three full-time employees, including herself, and about 100 customers so far, and she wants to develop more products to relieve back pain and other conditions.

The RecoveryAid sells for $279 on ActivAided's website and through Elizur, a local medical device distributor. The typical treatment period is two to three months.

“Since we're actually teaching people to do something a different way, ultimately the product becomes obsolete,” she said.

Alexander Soto said his company, Tunessence, settled on teaching guitar because it's the largest market for musical instruction and has a huge community of people trying to learn and find tabs for songs online.

A beta version of Tunessence, which uses a computer's microphone to hear the student and give feedback, debuted three weeks ago.

With the Open Field grant, the company, now with a staff of four, will fine-tune its system, add staff and eventually move into lessons for other stringed instruments, then piano.

Eventually, there could be web-based lessons for full bands, Soto said.

Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or kleonard@tribweb.com.

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